Archive for Rewriting

evil faceA lot of adventure, action and superhero movies set up a conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Nothing wrong with that, as the box office results of many of these films reflect. However, if you want to write a story with more depth you’ll need to move closer to the kind of choices ordinary people face.

After all, how many times in your life have you had to choose between doing something you knew was good and something you knew was evil—I mean super-villain evil? Probably not often if at all.

On the other hand, how often have you had to decide what to do in situations where both choices had their pluses and minuses? Probably frequently.  Other times both seem equally good or both seem mostly negative and you’re trying to figure out the lesser of two evils. I’m talking about dilemmas like these:

* You’re not as keen on somebody else as they are on you. If you tell them, you’ll hurt them now. If you don’t, they may get the wrong impression and it could hurt them more later.

* You know that a friend of yours is more seriously ill than she lets on. Do you let her know that you know so that you can be more helpful, or do you respect her wishes to keep her friends in the dark?

* You get a good job offer but it requires moving to another city. It will allow you to provide more for your family but it also will mean forcing your children to change schools in the middle of the school year and taking them away from their current circle of friends. Do you go or do you stay?

When you add regret to this equation, since in hindsight whichever choice we make can seem to have been the wrong one, you find yourself dealing with universals of the human condition.

Of course to craft a highly dramatic screenplay you may need to present your protagonist with choices that are more extreme but equally complicated. That’s when we begin to identify with your character, to get more involved by thinking about which choice we would make, and experiencing the results of their choice vicariously.

If you have a script that has a strong basic story but could use some additional depth, look beyond the actions of the characters to the reasons for those actions.

For instance, a kidnapper can be portrayed as just a villain motivated by greed, pure and simple. But there might be interesting aspects of that character to explore. Perhaps he was abused as a child and sees the kidnapping as a kind of rescue (even if the supposed abuse of the child he takes is all in his mind). Or maybe she finds in the course of holding the child hostage that she’s not as hard a person as she thought she was. Or maybe he feels he’s exhausted every legitimate avenue of getting money for something of true importance.

When you explore the characters in greater depth the story and dialogue gain more depth as well, and that can help even a superhero film. The vulnerability and failings of Spiderman, for example, have (in my opinion) always made him a more interesting character than Superman.

Look beyond good vs. evil, there’s character and story treasure to be found.

(Great writers like Dickens, Twain, Austen, Fitzgerald and Vonnegut knew how to create fascinating characters and put them into compelling stories. Many of these authors offered writing advice that serves the modern screenwriter or novelist, too. I’ve collected that advice and added suggestions on how to apply it to your writing. It’s all in the book called Your Creative Writing Masterclass. It’s published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)


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In the previous post I shared Robert Ringer’s first (of three) rules of writing. Here’s his rule number two, which I think is even more important for screenwriters than for novelists.

Simplicity is crucial. Can the reader quickly understand what you are trying to say? Eliminate verbal furniture.

Ringer says he learned this from the classic book, The Elements of Style. I think it’s more important than ever because these days there are even more distractions for the reader and because overly ornate or long-winded descriptions can slow a screenplay down to a crawl.

That doesn’t mean your writing can’t have a style. Elmore Leonard has a great sparse style. So does Raymond Carver but I don’t think you’d ever mistake his writing for Leonard’s. In screenwriting, William Goldman is a good example–his scripts have personality but it doesn’t overwhelm the story.

In doing the research for my new book, Your Creative Writing Masterclass, which includes writing advice from classic authors, the notion of simplicity comes up again and again. Anton Chekhov and Mark Twain were among the proponents.  (Plug: that book comes out in January—you can pre-order it now from Amazon.)

One way to simplify is to hunt for unnecessary adjectives. Newer writers sometimes go for the rule of three on this: three adjectives per noun. Too much.

Adverbs also are great candidates for pruning, especially when they apply to how dialogue is expressed: “Give me that right now!” he said angrily–or in screenplays, the parenthetical (angrily) between the character’s  name and his dialogue. Given the words themselves and possibly your description of the person, it should be obvious that he’s angry.

Ringer quotes from  Elements of Style: “the power of understatement is enormous.”

Next post: Ringer’s third rule of writing.

One of my rules of writing is, if you need support and guidance, get it! One way to do that is to join my online Writing Breakthrough Strategy program. You can find out more and sign up at

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The other morning I received a newsletter that included Robert Ringer’s three rules for writers and I think they’re worth making your own, whether you are writing a screenplay or anything else.

In case you’re not familiar with him, years ago Robert Ringer had a best-selling book called Winning Through Intimidation. That was a misleading title (which he changed in more recent editions) because really it was about standing up for yourself, not bullying people.

Here are the two parts of his first rule of writing, along with my comments:

1a: Force yourself to write; once you get going, don’t stop to congratulate yourself.

The idea behind the first part of this is that if you take writing seriously you can’t wait for inspiration to come to you. You have to go to it (even if it’s hiding and won’t come out at first).

In one of my writing workshops a participant said he tried to do this, but some days he would feel blocked in working on his project. I asked him what he did on those days. “Uh…just look around the internet,” he said.

I suggested that instead he start writing about one of his characters—anything, not necessarily material that would be in the script. For instance, if it was eight in the morning when he sat down to work, write about what his protagonist would be doing at eight in the morning.

He looked sceptical but told me he’d try it and report back to me.

A couple of weeks later I heard from him. He said not only did it work in terms of getting his writing juices flowing, it also promoted some new ideas for the plot.

(You’ll find 25 specific ways to get the flow of ideas going, in my book “Creativity Now!” (Pearson Publishing). You can get it from Amazon or your other favorite book seller.)

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